Opens Fri., June 14 at Harvard Exit. Rated PG-13. 87 minutes.
My ears prick up whenever I hear how Bill Gates and Paul Allen are spending their money. Putatively a documentary about the resurgence of nuclear power, Pandora’s Promise is actually an infomercial for a business still stigmatized by Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, and our fears of all things atomic. A parade of sympathetic scientists and former anti-nuke activists offer their well-rehearsed arguments for a nuclear revival. We can replace coal, they say. New reactors are cleaner and safer. The waste problem has been exaggerated. No one’s ever died from a nuclear accident. Global warming, Chinese demand, etc. All the juice for our iPhones and cloud apps—powered by distant, hungry servers—has to come from somewhere, they say.
This is all true to a point, but that point is given absolutely no reasonable rebuttal in Pandora’s Promise, which was produced by CNN and Paul Allen’s Vulcan Productions. (Robert Stone is the director-for-hire.) If you think back to the height of the no-nukes ’80s, immediately following Three Mile Island, you may recall Dr. Helen Caldicott, a passionate opponent of nuclear weapons and power. She’s the straw-woman in Pandora’s Promise, making extreme claims about one million radiation deaths. Stone unfairly captures her in a shrill backstage moment, ranting about a government cover-up, but she’s also 75 years old, not the best person to be presenting the anti-nuke argument today.
But the doc’s bigger flaw is that no one is allowed to make a reasoned anti-nuclear argument. To the well-made film’s many statistics, graphics, and common-sense assertions, the lack of a rebuttal is deafening. Some cheesy old archival footage reminds us how GE and other companies once hoped to profit from nuclear power. But you have to study the credits and press notes to see how close Pandora’s Promise is to its subject. Gates, Nathan Myhrvold, and other tech-world peers of Allen are backers of Bellevue-based TerraPower, which seeks to make fourth-generation “traveling wave” reactors that are supposedly cleaner, safer, and more efficient than the kind that gave our state the costly Hanford and WPPSS debacles. Maybe they are—I have no idea, because I’m not a physicist, and because I’m only getting one side of the argument here. And when I hear Pulitzer-winning author Richard Rhodes (The Making of the Atomic Bomb) say that “to be anti-nuclear is fundamentally to be in favor of burning fossil fuels,” it sounds perfectly sensible. And that’s the problem with Pandora’s Promise: Though many of its claims may be truthful, the film is dishonest to its core. [Note: This story has been updated to correct the error, as readers in the comments section have caught, that Paul Allen is not an investor in TerraPower. My mistake, and I regret the error.]